The Opportunities and Perils of embracing Myanmar

The United States is cautiously engaging with the nominally civilian government of Myanmar (Burma) as that country implements reforms after five decades of authoritarian rule. An ethical dilemma exists in whether the U.S. should engage further in scope and depth with Myanmar and try to promote democracy and achieve geopolitical goals while de-emphasizing the country’s past and on-going human rights violations, or to remain disengaged until human rights conditions improve greatly and those accountable for human rights transgressions have been brought to justice.

Myanmar is reforming. Once considered as a pariah state and a Chinese satellite, the country is coming in from the cold as it undertakes unprecedented political and economic reforms after fifty years of military rule. The current process implemented by the government of President U Thein Sein has seen many positive developments. These include the release of many dissidents and ‘prisoners of conscience’ including opposition leader and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, free and fair by-elections held last April, implementation of various political and economic reforms, ceasefire deals with most ethnic rebel groups along the country’s periphery, loosening up of public space allowing a young but vibrant civil society scene to address grassroots level grievances, and abolition of most censorship, to name a few. It is the closest Myanmar has ever come to restoring democracy after 49 years of direct and indirect military rule. And due to Myanmar’s strategic location at the convergence of East, South and Southeast Asia, abundant natural resources and economic potential, it has quickly become an important piece on the Asian geopolitical chessboard.

Yet things are not quite smooth. The new Burmese government remains dominated by former officers (Thein Sein was an officer and served as the former junta’s prime minister from 2007 til becoming president in March 2011), the military retains a prominent role in the domestic political landscape including the constitutionally mandated reservation of a quarter of all parliamentary seats for unelected military representatives, ethnic conflict particularly in Kachin State has flared up and simmering religious tensions have erupted into deadly communal clashes in Rakhine State and central Myanmar. Much of the economy remains in the hands of an oligarchy of government-affiliated cronies, poverty and lack of alternatives are driving poor farmers in border regions to cultivate poppy, and there is growing resentment at large development projects and related land grabs which can spill into greater civil unrest.

The U.S. is taking a calculated risk in reengaging Myanmar. An ethical dilemma exists in whether the U.S. should engage further with the Burmese government and gently nudge it towards more reforms while de-emphasizing the country’s human rights violations due to serious sensitivities, or should the U.S. remain disengaged until human rights conditions improve greatly and press for those accountable for human rights transgressions to be brought to justice.

Brief Overview of Bilateral Relations

Myanmar has been ruled by one form or another of military-dominated governments since 1962 but bilateral relations with the United States were cordial during the Cold War. Myanmar was a non-aligned state but sent the largest contingent of participants to the U.S.’s International Military Education and Training program. It was only after the reassertion of the military’s praetorian role in domestic politics after violently suppressing popular anti-government protests in 1988 that bilateral relations deteriorated. Myanmar became a by-word for authoritarian oppression as the junta clamped down on dissent and rights groups reported mounting human rights violations against the country’s many ethnic minorities, some of which had waged civil war since independence in 1948. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the U.S. maintained economic and diplomatic sanctions against Myanmar, while pushing for regime change and showing support for the Burmese opposition movements led by Nobel laureate Daw Aung  San Suu Kyi.

Bilateral relations began to improve in late 2009 when President Barack Obama began a major policy shift on the U.S.’s relations with Myanmar. A nominally civilian government led by the former junta’s Prime Minister Thein Sein assumed office in 2011 after controversial elections which were held in accordance with a contentious military-drafted constitution. Since then, Myanmar has embarked on ambitious reforms to improve its political and economic situation. The U.S. upgraded its diplomatic presence in the middle of 2012 by posting Derek Mitchell as the first ambassador to Myanmar since 1990. High profile visits by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December 2011 and by President Obama in November 2012 highlight the rapprochement’s rapid progression. The U.S. is set to play an increasing geopolitical, economic and possibly defense-related role. Myanmar’s transition also coincides with the U.S.’s strategic pivot towards Asia, where the U.S. aims to reinvigorate its regional commitments to reflect the changing global situation.


To engage…

Engaging with Myanmar presents a mix of opportunities and challenges to the United States. On one hand, embracing Myanmar risks impeding the very reforms themselves. If the United States shows too much eagerness to engage with the government, it may signal to government hardliners and people with vested interests that the reforms have progressed sufficiently and should be halted for whatever reasons they fashion. Activists argue that removing long-imposed sanctions too quickly to reward good behavior risks weakening the U.S.’s leverage in case of any backtracking. It is also important to note that Myanmar’s reforms are primarily driven due to domestic considerations rather than as a response to international sanctions, although some observers credit sanctions as having played a role.

Myanmar’s international relations for the past two decades have been driven partly by the search for recognition and legitimacy. Having an American ambassador reposted in Myanmar and high-profile visits risk being interpreted as a complete endorsement of the pace, direction and depth of reforms. This may make the Burmese government grow complacent and render the reform process lethargic.

To ensure that the reforms maintain momentum, the U.S. and Western states have to relegate accountability for past and present human rights abuses to the background of discussions. Bringing up the issue of accountability for past authoritarian misconducts will certainly hit a raw nerve. This means that justice for victims of rights violations is not achieved, and those responsible for such transgressions go unpunished. By not bringing up this issue of accountability, the U.S. can convey wrong signals not only to Naypyidaw but also to authoritarian states that the U.S. may choose to ignore human rights violations and such regimes can act with impunity as long as they are willing to repent later.

On the other hand, there is a unique opportunity for the United States to achieve a variety of issues. Myanmar is now very willing to meet international norms of governance, seen in its desire to tackle official corruption, budget transparency and bureaucratic good practices. The U.S. also has the opportunity to become a crucial partner as Myanmar makes its way through the arduous reform process by providing technical expertise, resources and knowhow to address the multitude of pressing challenges.

American companies, long absent due to sanctions, stand to gain entry to a market of over sixty million potential consumers. Myanmar is also endowed with a variety of natural resources which serve as attractive investment options - an August 2012 report by the United States Geological Survey estimates that various basins in Myanmar may hold as much as 2.3 billion barrels of oil, 79.6 trillion cubic feet of gas and 2.1 billion barrels of natural gas. Myanmar may also be a potential source of rare earth elements (REE) - Japan and South Korea have moved recently to secure access to these minerals in the face of uncertainty from China, the world’s leading supplier of REEs.

Engaging with Myanmar will create a middle class, which is seen as crucial in strengthening democracy, create jobs which can bring benefits to the impoverished and also help mitigate corruption among the civil service. And while economics alone will not solve Myanmar’s complex political issues, the involvement of U.S. and Western companies and businesses can contribute positively in pushing for labor rights, tackle income inequality and promote good business practices.


…or not to engage

If the United States chooses not to engage further with Myanmar, it risks missing a small window of opportunity to be an ‘early adopter’ and early participant in Myanmar’s time of significant and historic developments. This will also have geopolitical and economic ramifications. Some analysts portray Myanmar as in the middle of a heated tug of influence between the U.S. and China. China hopes to compensate its geographic disadvantages by linking up the Chinese hinterland to the Indian Ocean through an oil-and-gas pipeline and high speed rail link terminating at the Burmese port town of Kyaukphyu. China has also invested heavily in other large but deeply unpopular projects which are reportedly detrimental to the environment and local communities. Some of these projects have been linked to escalations of conflict, persecution and mismanagement.

If the U.S. does not signal enough reciprocity of events on the ground, it risks sending the wrong signal that the U.S. does not value what the government has undertaken, and undermine the momentum of the reformists. As mentioned above, recognition and legitimacy are important in Myanmar’s international relations - the U.S.’s continued usage of ‘Burma’ as a symbolic refusal of recognition remains a thorn in bilateral relations and highlights the importance of symbolism and recognition. As such, by denying acknowledgement of the reform process, hardliners will perceive that their efforts are not valued and that they are damned if they don’t reform and damned if they do, so they might as well choose to remain recalcitrant and hold onto their privileges.

The insistence that Myanmar gets its human rights act together before further engagement will reaffirm the U.S.’s commitments to advancing liberal democratic values worldwide. It will show the U.S.’s resolve to promoting human rights and the central role such values play in U.S. foreign policy. This will signal to recalcitrant, authoritarian or illiberal countries that the U.S. stands by its principles and will not tolerate any violation of human rights.


Issues of Accountability

A great ethical challenge arises concerning how the U.S. should treat past violations of human rights within Myanmar. Human rights organizations and dissident groups have meticulously documented a horrific array of gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Burmese military against ethnic minorities (Other participants in the conflicts have been similarly accused, but pale in comparison): widespread rape; the use of child soldiers; forced relocation, forced labor and land grabs for massive infrastructure projects; the use of landmines; and the seizing and destruction of livestock and property. According to the Border Consortium, there are nearly 130,000 refugees and nearly 14,000 internally displaced people along the Thai-Burmese border as of March 2013. Refugees International reports over 29,000 ‘official’ and 200,000 ‘unofficial’ refugees, mainly Rohingyas, residing in Bangladesh. The treatment of the Rohingyas, whom the Burmese government and most people inside Myanmar consider as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, has recently caught international attention. The country’s security apparatus was also responsible for the violent suppression of popular anti-government protests, and the prolonged detention of dissidents and critics.

Even after the new government assumed office, the political and human rights landscapes are yet to display much change. Four controversial incidents have raised numerous questions about the government’s dedication to reform – the escalation of the civil war in Kachin state, the two episodes of communal violence in Rakhine state between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas, the violent suppression of popular protests against a giant copper mine run jointly by a Chinese company and the Burmese military’s economic conglomerate, and finally the recent eruption of Buddhist-Muslim clashes along with the spread of militant anti-Muslim sentiments.

Civil war in Kachin state re-erupted in June 2011 after a seventeen year old ceasefire between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed due to security issues involving Chinese infrastructure projects. While civil war is not new to Myanmar, the recent Kachin conflict saw the government’s use of combat aircraft to strike rebel positions. And while the President ordered unilateral ceasefires in order to de-escalate the fighting, fighting continued such that some analysts questioned Thein Sein’s control over the military. Currently, the conflict has diminished in intensity due to a renewed effort towards ceasefire negotiations, but a huge trust deficit exists between the two sides. And according to a recent report released by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, the conflict may have displaced over 100,000 locals, many of whom lack access to emergency relief aid.

In June of 2012 and again in October, violence erupted between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in the western state of Rakhine. While some organizations and commentators portray the events as a one-sided ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims based solely on race and religion, the reality is more complex. While it is undeniable that Muslims bore the brunt of the violence, these two episodes were rooted in long standing communal tensions compounded by crippling poverty, long standing communal mistrust, systematic administrative mismanagements and the denial of basic human rights. A recent report by the Inquiry Commission of the Sectarian Violence in Rakhine State reported 192 deaths, 265 injured and 100,000 internally displaced, with over 8,600 homes and properties destroyed while other reports place the figures higher. Worse still, a recent Human Rights Watch report alleged that the Burmese authorities of carrying out ethnic cleansing, and of security forces either standing aside impotent or colluding with the Buddhists during the communal clashes. A similar but somewhat unrelated episode of communal violence concerning non-Rohingya Muslims in the town of Meikhtila in March 2013 raised similar accusations of government forces doing little to prevent the bloodshed. The Meikhtila violence resulted in at least 30 deaths and 12,000 displaced from both communities, again with reports that Muslims bore the brunt. These clashes coincide with the rise of a fringe but militant anti-Muslim movement which has spread with the aid of the relaxation of state oppression and censorship. These instances of communal violence have raised questions on the sincerity of the Thein Sein administration’s commitment to reforms and the rule of law.

Another key issue which raises similar questions is the way with which the government handles popular protests against land confiscations and unpopular projects. The most notable episode involves a joint-venture copper mine between a subsidiary company of a Chinese arms manufacturer, and a Burmese military conglomerate at the town of Letpadaung. A pre-dawn raid by Burmese riot police in late November 2012 ended in protesters receiving serious burns and parallels were drawn to the junta’s methods. Protests against land confiscations are bound to continue as Myanmar opens up to international investment, and as the people also test the limits of their new found liberties. The use of overwhelming force, juxtaposed against accusations of inaction concerning the communal clashes will undoubtedly lead to questions of whether the security forces remain accountable to their actions, and whether they are sincerely used for law enforcement rather than oppression.


Conclusion: a Leap of Faith

Since 2011, when President Thein Sein and his ‘nominally-civilian’ government took office, Myanmar has undergone major changes, manicuring and priming themselves with waves of wide-ranging political and economic reforms such as releasing a number of political prisons such as opposition leader and democracy icon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, increasing political discussion and participation, deregulating media censorship, suspending a controversial multi-billion dollar hydroelectric dam project in the face of popular opposition, and a string of other milestones. These progressive reforms have been quick and drastic.

However, ethnic conflicts and religious tensions still plague the resource-rich Southeast Asian country. In fact, some activists and dissidents argue that human rights violations remain and communal tensions have worsened despite the reforms. As the international champion of democratic values and an upholder of international obligations of the United Nations, the U.S. is clearly challenged with an ethical quandary regarding the accountability for heinous human rights violations - if the U.S. and the international community really have Myanmar’s best interest in hand, should they continue to impose economic sanctions and sit on the sidelines until the tense climate improves, or should they engage with caution, care and patience, becoming mindful of the ethnic conflicts and of the repercussions of their assistance?

During his latest visit to Myanmar in February 2013, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana reminded the international community “of their important role in prioritizing human rights when engaging in bilateral relations with Myanmar, including in business and investment relations.” While sanctions dominated the West’s relations with Myanmar over the past two decades, most Western governments and much of the human rights conscious community now favor engaging and socializing the Burmese government to push for democratic reforms. This stems from the belief that imposing sanctions on Myanmar actually hurts economic recovery and this could then affect the social and cultural rights of the Burmese people. With Myanmar preparing to assume ASEAN Chairmanship responsibilities in the upcoming year of 2014, it would be advisable for the U.S. to continue engaging with Myanmar, but to do so with prudence, awareness and high moral standards. Engagement will not only improve bilateral relations between the U.S. and Myanmar, but will also enhance the U.S.’s commitment to the region as per its Pivot to Asia.

Myanmar is reforming and is at the cusp of great change. The United States finally has a good chance in making democracy take root by engaging fully with the government and peoples of that country. But doing so also presents a major ethical challenge concerning accountability for heinous human rights violations. Yet, at this juncture, the U.S. should take a leap of faith and press ahead in embracing Myanmar, and only when reforms have become firmly rooted, turn to the issue of accountability and justice for Myanmar's human rights violations.

Katrina Gawen

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Nationality: United States


Kyaw San Wai

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Nationality: Myanmar

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